Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Pilot Review: CSI: Cyber

CSI: Cyber (Wednesdays at 10:00 on CBS; Premieres March 4)

These long-running CBS franchises that continue to be expanded (both NCIS and CSI have spin-offs this year, and Criminal Minds has had one in the past and another on tap) are not exactly brain food. They don't challenge audiences; they don't make you think. It's why they're so damn popular. People can relax in bed or curled up under an electric blanket and check their e-mail, read a magazine, eat dinner, talk on the phone, or doze off and not really miss anything. And if you do miss something important? Meh, there'll be another episode just like that one on next week, so it's no big deal. But they're just entertaining enough, just the right amount of bland and fun, that they make for great background noise or detached, casual viewing. CSI: Cyber is no exception to this formula.

This time around, in the fourth installment of the CSI franchise, we're following Special Agent Avery Ryan (newly minted Academy Award winner Patricia Arquette), a behavioral psychologist who was once the victim of a hacker, and her federal team of cyber crime investigators. Cyber crime is loosely defined here, ranging from murders that have some internet origin to hacking, cyber stalking, and blackmailing. Ryan was apparently introduced in a standalone episode of the mothership series last season, so she won't be entirely new to devout viewers, but her team is. They're lead by Ryan's second in command, Senior Special Agent (these titles are absurd) Elijah Mundo (James Van Der Beek), an expert in weaponry, and rounded out by a bunch of other agents who specialize in everything from hacking to social media investigations. In the pilot, the team investigates a kidnapping ring which targets babies via hacked baby monitors. Yes, that is the real plot.

The only real difference between Cyber and any other CSI show is that all the crimes are tech-based. Which is to say, there's barely any difference at all. That's fine, considering the only differences between CSI and its two previous spin-offs is the change in location, because Cyber switches up the location and the theme of its crime. Ryan and her team operate with the FBI out of Quantico, so the scope is a little larger. But despite attempts to update the concept and make it hipper by concentrating on technologically based crimes, there's little about the show itself that feels new or fresh or exciting.

The exception to this is the cast. Arquette alone makes Cyber worth, at the very least, a casual viewing. She's intense and internally protective, radiating a hardness and a command but still a bit of vulnerability that reminds me of Mariska Hargitay in Law & Order: SVU. Like Olivia Benson, she knows what the victims are going through because she's been through it herself, so there's an element of retribution about Avery Ryan. James Van Der Beek is such a reliable presence, even if he's not given much more to do than catch the audience up with a bunch of exposition. The rest of the cast does little more than check off boxes for diversity: there's an overweight nerd; a Hispanic-Latino woman; and an African American guy. They all play certain types, filling out every little specialization you could possibly imagine when it comes to a cyber crime, but they aren't really characters, because in the world of CSI, the cases are what matter. And the first one is as ridiculous as you would expect from the description above of "baby monitor hackers," made all the more insane when the babies are later auctioned off to international buyers. It seems the creators wanted to make Cyber as crazy as possible, because the whole internet-based crime thing isn't exactly groundbreaking. You'll find examples of cyber crimes on literally every cop show out there, and it's been that way for many years now (it's been over a decade since Marlee Matlin played a doctor using internet message boards to help people commit suicide on SVU, for example). Even just this year, CBS has a tech-inspired procedural already airing in Scorpion. It's not as fresh as the CSI producers who shepherded this extension seem to think, so making the cases batshit crazy is yet another way to make the show stand out. Because the actual solving of cyber crimes? Not that interesting. There's a lot of typing and looking at screens and not a lot of field work. It can get dull.

Aside from its theme, and sometimes because of it, CSI: Cyber feels like more of the same. Even the opening credits are a little too similar to CSI: this new series also uses a song by The Who. The visual look is the same as well, that dark, bluish tint pervading most shots (director Eagle Egilsson has now shot episodes for three of the four CSI series) and quick cuts throughout. The cast of characters is smaller than usual, but they still cover all the same bases. Cyber is a stiff, supremely calculated exercise, not truly aiming to do anything new or to do it exceedingly well. It gets some things right, most notably the casting of its leads, but other pieces feel like they fit too perfectly and neatly together to be exciting. Fun? Maybe. Must see TV? Not really.

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